Duck Lake Peak & Pika Lake Loop WTC Experience Trip Costs Us a Vehicle

  • Updated: August 27, 2017
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

August 26th & 27th, 2017
Duck Lake Peak (12,051')
Day 1: 5.3 miles, 2,000' gain
Day 2: 11.2 miles, 3,000' gain

Duck Lake Peak isn't on the Sierra Peaks List (or any other lists that than I'm aware of) but it's a moderately accessible named peak in a spectacularly beautiful area of the Eastern Sierra that lends itself to a two day overnight backpack with the option to camp beside a lake.  So pretty much exactly what I look for in a WTC Experience Trip except for the fact it's too high for campfires.

I was also particularly excited for this trip because we planned to hiked between trailheads of Lake Mary and Lake George in Mammoth Lakes.  I've been going to that area for fishing trips with my dad since long before I started climbing mountains and I was looking forward to finally getting a good look at the terrain I'd been staring up at for all of those years.

This was also the trip that resulted in Jen Blackie having to sell her trusty Toyota Scion after mechanical issues stranded us on the way back home.  Because you can't have things going too smoothly.

This trip was led by Jen Blackie and I and we picked a weekend in late August when the snow should have been completely gone.  (As it turned out thanks to the record snow level there was still a little here and there but not enough to cause an issue)  It also fell on the weekend before the planned Labor Day buttkicker trip the following weekend and this made for a nice recovery weekend / warmup.

To split up the drive Jen and I drove just north of Bishop and bivied at the usual spot behind the Sherwin Summit sign.  The drive was uneventful other than a check engine light coming on around Big Pine which didn't seem to be a major cause for concern at the time.

Since we had a relatively easy first day (5.3 miles, 2k gain) we had decided on a relaxed start and took advantage of the chance to go to breakfast in Mammoth.

We sent a note out to the participants that we'd be at The Stove and two people joined us for a quite excellent pre hike breakfast.  I could get used to this sort of thing...

Picking up the permit at the ranger station in town went quickly outside of the slight distraction offered by the gift shop and we were soon on the way to our trailhead to meet our participants.

Day 1: Lake Mary To Pika Lake

5.3 miles, 2,000' gain

We had everyone meet at the parking lot for Lake George since our plan was to exit there after hiking in from nearby Lake Mary.

The parking lot was busy mostly with fisherman and tourists and two of our vehicles had to park on the shoulder down the road.  We managed to find all of our participants minus one who had driven up to Mammoth but sadly didn't feel well enough to do trip.

We loaded up our packs and piled into two vehicles leaving the rest for a car shuttle when we came out Sunday.  (Technically the two are close enough you could walk the road or hitchhike but it would be a bit of a drag)

There are actually two different trailheads at the southeastern end of Mary. We mistakenly parked at the Emerald Lake TH parking area but it's a short enough walk to Duck Pass we didn't bother moving the cars.  We started hiking around 9:30 am.

The trail starts around 9,100' and climbs steadily at what I would call a gentle pace but some of our group found it to be a challenge.  Fortunately the trail soon starts passing some rather scenic lakes perfect for a rest stop.

We took an extended break at Barney Lake around 12 pm before starting the climb over the pass. It was a beautiful spot and there seemed to be a fair amount of camping but it was also covered with people most of whom seemed to be day hiking.

Duck Pass itself was a lot of fun. It's only about 600 ft of gain and the trail is relatively gentle so it goes fast. I was starting to feel quite a bit stronger after the progression of trips this summer so I may have slightly jogged up the trail while my group and co leader enjoyed the climb at a more measured pace.  The view back down the canyon at Mammoth Mountain was well worth appreciating.

Once over the pass we could see our peak and where we planned to spend the night. Duck Lake Peak is to the left and Pika Lake is hidden behind the tree covered ridge to the right.  The large lake in the foreground is Duck Lake.

The hike around Duck Lake was spectacularly green with flowers blooming everywhere.

We found the remains of an old structure build into a large boulder partway around the lake.  I haven't found anything definitive about the history of it so if you're reading this and know anything please let me know.  

The door was locked so I wasn't able to get any pictures of the inside.

We arrived to Pika Lake to find multiple parties already camped in the trees along the northern shore and we could see what looked like a group of Boy Scouts coming up the trail behind us. (Sure thing they were Boy Scouts and they soon set up camp on the grass right by the lake and generally acted about how I expect BSA groups to at this point)

At first I was really bummed we'd be camping in the middle of all of this (though heading back into the trees away from the lake to the north turned out to have a decent number of good isolated spots if you don't mind walking for water.)  But we decided to explore and see what else we could find.

Fortunately there's some nice camping on the segment between Pika and Duck and at least when we were there no one else bypassed the more obvious camps and came here.

We settled on a spot on top of a rise that had the advantage of not looking directly down at Pika.  As a result we felt a lot more isolated and we even had access to some water up there without dropping down to Pika or Duck.

We were in camp by 2:30 pm which meant that we had plenty of time to kick back and relax.  (As intended)  Since I sleep out in a bivy I had a chance to look around while everyone else was busy setting up tents.  After some initial poking around I wandered down to Duck Lake and jumped in.

The water was chilly and we had a slight wind but with the sun it was pleasant enough.  I let the others know where I was and soon Jen and Alisse were down swimming as well.

Summer joined us on the shore and proved immune to peer pressure based attempts to get him to jump in.  (The fact the clouds had come in and it was now a bit more chilly didn't help our case!)  He watched while we all went in multiple times declaring we were all crazy.

After all that fun we returned to our kitchen area and rousted the remainder of the group.  Several people had taken advantage of the time to nap or relax while we were joyously freezing out keesters off.

Jen and I had declared there would be a competition for best happy hour item judged by us and with an unspecified prize.

After all the entries were in (and consumed) we decided on the sangria Liz and David had made and awarded them a canned black bear.

After that we enjoyed a pleasant sunset before turning in at a downright reasonable hour.

Day 2: Duck Lake Peak & Out Via Mammoth Crest To George Lake

11.2 miles, 3,000' gain

We had everyone up pre dawn and hiking at first light since we had a big day ahead of us and we hoped to be back in town early enough to enjoy some warm mexican food.  And, you know, drive all the way back to Orange County.

We climbed the slope north of Pika Lake and traversed north until we found terrain we like.

It was a little on the loose side but went just fine.  And from the looks of things you could continue further north and gain the ridge to have an even easier time.

Views from the summit were ok...

Ritter & Banner off in the distance with Mammoth Mountain on the right

We were back in camp by 10 am and quickly went about packing up.

This is the view from where Jen had her tent set up.  It was hidden from the rest of us by trees giving her this private patio of sorts.

By 11:30 am we were back at the pass and this is where it would get interesting.  Our plan was to take the trail along Mammoth Crest which looked from a distance to still have some snow.  (Keep in mind this was a really high snow year so normally I wouldn't expect to see this)

Two participants elected to sign out at this point and hike back down to their car at Lake Mary.  That direction does have the advantage of avoiding a bit of uphill but the route exiting via George had much better views.

There isn't a marked junction off the main trail but we found an intermittent use trail once we started up towards the pass to Deer Lakes.

There were a few patched of unavoidable snow but it was low angle enough we skated right past it.

Deer Lakes looked like it would have been a nicer place it camp in some ways.  It had less of a view but also seemed to have less signs of camping or foot traffic.

After Deer Lakes that the trail climbed back to the crest leaving us with breathtaking views of Ritter & Banner and Mammoth.

The pictures don't really convey the sense of scale you get when you're actually there.

Where the trail crossed the crest and descended down towards Lake George was a perfect picture spot that showed off the entire basin.  You can just make our Duck Lake Peak in the background, Mammoth Crest on the right, and the white rock in the middle is Crystal Crag (which is another item on my shortlist next season)

The last part of the hike down the switchbacks to Lake George did seem to drag on and by the bottom my knees were screaming at me.  We made it down to the cars a little before 5 pm and an hour later we were at Roberto's Mexican food in town.

After a suitable awesome dinner we all said our goodbyes and headed for home. Several hours later Jen was driving and I was dozing in the passenger seat as we passed Ridgecrest.  I woke up confused as to why I was sweating and realized the air conditioner was spitting out hot air despite being set to max AC and as cold as it would go.

When I pointed this out to Jen and looked down at her gages and cursed.  Remember that check engine light late Friday night?  Well at some point the temperature gauge had started to run high and hadn't been noticed.

We did what any modern person would do faced with such a crisis and started searching the internet for what to do.  This gave us a few things to try but eventually we ended up pulled over at the Randsburg exit (aka pretty much in the middle of nowhere) with nothing left to try.

We were roughly two hours from home, didn't have a functional vehicle, and both of us were supposed to be at work the following morning.

We found a guy on Yelp that promised middle of the night roadside assistance but it turned out that particular night it meant 8 the next morning.  We also tried calling the other cars in our group but they were already well down the road.

In the end Kristen (who was just getting back from another Sierra trip that weekend) ended up driving out to pick me up so I could get to work the next day and we got back painfully late.  Jen stayed, called in sick, got towed to Ridgecrest the following morning, and then got a rental car to get back to Orange County while a local mechanic looked at the Scion.

The diagnosis ended up being damage to the head gasket and the quote to fix it was well north of what the car was worth not to mention there was a good chance she'd run into more issues later.

So sadly that was the end for Blondies Scion.  She ended up getting a new car and then driving up to Ridgecrest where she sold the car on Craigslist for $500.  But on the plus side she ended up joining team green!

So in short: Duck Lake Peak = awesome and ignore check engine lights at your peril.

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